The consumer vision that is pushed by advertising and which is conquering the world is based fundamentally, as I argued before, on a notion of economic growth. Growth requires resources (both raw materials and energy) and there is a broad consensus among environmental scholars that the earth cannot sustain past levels of expansion based upon resource- intensive modes of economic activity, especially as more and more nations struggle to join the feeding trough.
The environmental crisis is complex and multilayered, cutting across both production and consumption issues. For instance just in terms of resource depletion, we know that we are rapidly exhausting what the earth can offer and that if the present growth and consumption trends continued unchecked, the limits to growth on the planet will be reached sometime within the next century.Industrial production uses up resources and energy at a rate that had never before even been imagined. Since 1950 the world’s population has used up more of the earth’s resources than all the generations that came before. (Durning 1991 p.157) In 50 years we have matched the use of thousands of years. The west and especially Americans have used the most of these resources so we have a special responsibility for the approaching crisis. In another hundred years we will have exhausted the planet.
But even more than that even, we will have done irreparable damage to the environment on which we depend for everything. As environmental activist Barry Commoner says:
The environment makes up a huge, enormously complex living machine that forms a thin dynamic layer on the earth’s surface, and every human activity depends on the integrity and proper functioning of this machine…This machine is our biological capital, the basic apparatus on which our total productivity depends. If we destroy it, our most advanced technology will become useless and any economic and political system that depends on it will flounder. The environmental crisis is a signal of the approaching catastrophe. (Commoner 1971 p.16-17)
The clearest indication of the way in which we produce is having an effect on the eco-sphere of the planet is the depletion of the ozone layer, which has dramatically increased the amount of ultraviolet radiation that is damaging or lethal to many life forms on the planet. In 1985 scientists discovered the existence of a huge hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole that is the size of the United States illustrating how the activities of humans are changing the very make-up of the earth. In his book The End of Nature Bill McKibben reminds us that “we have done this ourselves…. by driving our cars, building our factories, cutting down our forests, turning on air conditioners.” (1989 p.45) He writes that the history of the world is full of the most incredible events that changed the way we lived, but they are all dwarfed by what we have accomplished in the last 50 years.
Man’s efforts, even at their mightiest, were tiny compared with the size of the planet — the Roman Empire meant nothing to the Artic or the Amazon. But now, the way of life of one part of the world in one half-century is altering every inch and every hour of the globe. (1989 p.46)
The situation is so bad that the scientific community is desperately trying to get the attention of the rest of us to wake up to the danger. The Union of Concerned Scientists (representing 1700 of the world’s leading scientists, including a majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences) recently issued this appeal:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring.
It is important to avoid the prediction of immediate catastrophe. We have already done a lot of damage but the real environmental crisis will not hit until some time in the middle of the next century. However to avoid that catastrophe we have to take action now. We have to put in place the steps that will save us in 70 years time.
The metaphor that best describes the task before us is of an oil tanker heading for a crash on the shore. Because of its momentum and size, to avoid crashing the oil tanker has to start turning well before it reaches the coast, anticipating it own momentum. If it starts turning too late it will smash into the coast. That is where the consumer society is right now. We have to make fundamental changes in the way we organize ourselves, in what we stress in our economy, if want to avoid the catastrophe in 70 years time. We have to take action now.
In that sense the present generation has a unique responsibility in human history. It is literally up to us to save the world, to make the changes we need to make. If we do not, we will be in barbarism and savagery towards each other in 70 years time. We have to make short-term sacifices. We have to give up our our non-essential appliances. We especially have to rethink our relationship to the car. We have to make real changes not just recycling but fundamental changes in how we live and produce. And we cannot do this individually, we have to do it collectively. We have to find the political will somehow to do this and we may even be dead when its real effects will be felt. The vital issue is “how do we identify with that generation in the next century?” As the political philosopher Robert Heilbroner says:
“A crucial problem for the world of the future will be a concern for generations to come. Where will such concern arise?…Contemporary industrial man, his appetite for the present whetted by the values of a high-consumption society and his attitude toward the future influenced by the prevailing canons of self- concern, has but a limited motivation to form such bonds. There are many who would sacrifice much for their children; fewer would do so for their grandchildren. (Heilbroner 1980 p. 134-5)
Forming such bonds will be made even more difficult within our current context that stresses individual (not social) needs and the immediate situation (not the long-term). The advertising system will form the ground on which we think about the future of the human race, and there is nothing there that should give us any hope for the development of such a perspective. The time-frame of advertising is very short-term. It does not encourage us to think beyond the immediacy of present sensual experience. Indeed it may well be the case that as the advertising environment gets more and more crowded, with more and more of what advertisers label as “noise” threatening to drown out individual messages, the appeal will be made to levels of experience that cut through clutter, appealing immediately and deeply to very emotional states. Striking emotional imagery that grabs the “gut” instantly leaves no room for thinking about anything. Sexual imagery, especially in the age of AIDS where sex is being connected to death, will need to become even more powerful and immediate, to overcome any possible negative associations indeed to remove us from the world of connotation and meaning construed cognitively. The value of a collective social future is one that does not, and will not, find expression within our commercially dominated culture. Indeed the prevailing values provide no incentive to develop bonds with future generations and there is a real sense of nihilism and despair about the future, and a closing of ranks against the outside.
Imagining a Different Future
Over a 100 years ago, Marx observed that there were two directions that capitalism could take: towards a democratic “socialism” or towards a brutal “barbarism”. Both long-term and recent evidence would seem to indicate that the latter is where we are headed, unless alternative values quickly come to the fore.
Many people thought that the environmental crisis would be the linchpin for the lessening of international tensions as we recognized our interdependence and our collective security and future. But as the Persian Gulf War made clear, the New World Order will be based upon a struggle for scarce resources. Before the propaganda rationale shifted to the “struggle for freedom and democracy,” George Bush reminded the American people that the troops were being dispatched to the Gulf to protect the resources that make possible “our way of life”. An automobile culture and commodity-based culture such as ours is reliant upon sources of cheap oil. And if the cost of that is 100,000 dead Iraquis, well so be it. In such a scenario the peoples of the Third World will be seen as enemies who are making unreasonable claims on “our” resources. The future and the Third World can wait. Our commercial dominated cultural discourse reminds us powerfully everyday, we need ours and we need it now. In that sense the Gulf War is a preview of what is to come. As the world runs out of resources, the most powerful military sources will use that might to ensure access.
The destructive aspects of capitalism (its short-term nature, its denial of collective values, its stress on the material life), are starting to be recognized by some people who have made their fortunes through the market. The billionaire turned philanthropist George Soros (1997) talks about what he calls “the capitalist threat” and culturally speaking, advertising is the main voice of that threat. To the extent that it pushes us towards material things for satisfaction and away from the construction of social relationships, it pushes us down the road to increased economic production that is driving the coming environmental catastrophe. To the extent that it talks about our individual and private needs, it pushes discussion about collective issues to the margins. To the extent that it talks about the present only, it makes thinking about the future difficult. To the extent that it does all these things, then advertising becomes one of the major obstacles to our survival as a species.
Getting out of this situation, coming up with new ways to look at the world, will require enormous work, and one response may just be to enjoy the end of the world one last great fling, the party to end all parties. The alternative response, to change the situation, to work for humane, collective long-term values, will require an effort of the most immense kind.
And there is evidence to be hopeful about the results of such an attempt. It is important to stress that creating and maintaining the present structure of the consumer culture takes enormous work and effort. The reason consumer ways of looking at the world predominate is because there are billions of dollars being spent on it every single day. The consumer culture is not simply erected and then forgotten. It has to be held in place by the activities of the ad industry, and increasingly the activities of the public relations industry. Capitalism has to try really hard to convince us about the value of the commercial vision. In some senses consumer capitalism is a house of cards, held together in a fragile way by immense effort, and it could just as soon melt away as hold together. It will depend if there are viable alternatives that will motivate people to believe in a different future, if there are other ideas as pleasurable, as powerful, as fun, as passionate with which people can identify.
I am reminded here of the work of Antonio Gramsci who coined the famous phrase, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” “Pessimism of the intellect” means recognizing the reality of our present circumstances, analyzing the vast forces arrayed against us, but insisting on the possibilities and the moral desirability of social change that is “the optimism of the will,” believing in human values that will be the inspiration for us to struggle for our survival
I do not want to be too Pollyanish about the possibilities of social change. It is not just collective values that need to be struggled for, but collective values that recognize individual rights and individual creativity. There are many repressive collective movements already in existence from our own home-grown Christian fundamentalists to the Islamic zealots of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The task is not easy. It means balancing and integrating different views of the world. As Ehrenreich writes:
Can we envision a society which values not “collectivity” with its dreary implications of conformity but what I can only think to call conviviality, which could, potentially, be built right into the social infrastructure with opportunities, at all levels for rewarding, democratic participation? Can we envision a society that does not dismiss individualism, but truly values individual creative expression including dissidence, debate, nonconformity, artistic experimentation, and in the larger sense, adventure. the project remains what it has always been: to replace the consumer culture with a genuinely human culture. (Ehrenreich 1990 p.47)
The stakes are simply too high for us not to deal with the real and pressing problems that face us a species — finding a progressive and humane collective solution to the global crisis and ensuring for our children and future generations a world fit for truly human habitation.